Monday, August 29, 2011

Get Behind Me, Satan


In church yesterday our Gospel text was Matthew 16:21–28, the passage in which Jesus says to his disciple Peter “Get behind me, Satan.”

The situation is this: Jesus has just told the disciples that he must suffer, die and rise again. Peter rebukes Jesus, “This must never happen to you.” In turn, Jesus rebukes Peter.

As recently as verse 18, Jesus had praised Peter as the “rock” on which he will build the church. Now, because Peter has expressed a vision contrary to God’s, and perhaps because this vision is genuinely tempting, Jesus calls Peter “Satan”--the adversary and tempter.

It’s a strange expression, “Get behind me, Satan.” I know at least three jokes built on the phrase. I guess I have always thought it was an idiom meaning something like “Get away from me,” or “Get out of my sight.”

Working with the text last week, I found something in it that I’d never seen before. In the Greek New Testament, Jesus says,

“Ὕπαγε ὀπίσω μου, Σατανᾶ.”

I will transliterate that “hUpage opiso mou, Satana” and translate it roughly, “Go behind me, Satan.”

It’s that second Greek word “opiso” that I’m concerned with. It means “behind” in a spatial sense. And it occurs again in the very next verse, where Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In Greek it looks like this:

“Εἴ τις θέλει ὀπίσω μου ἐλθεῖν, ἀπαρνησάσθω ἑαυτὸν καὶ ἀράτω τὸν σταυρὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀκολουθείτω μοι.”

Do you see our little friend opiso in there? (I know, it's hard to miss since I bolded it).  A very literal translation would be “If anyone wishes to come behind me, let him take up his cross and follow me.”

Do you see what is going on here? In verse 23, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me.” In verse 24, he tells those who wish “to come behind” him that they must take up their crosses. So, when Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan,” he was telling Peter that, as a disciple, he needed to get back in line, following behind Jesus.

Peter is called “Satan” in this passage because he would lead Jesus into a way of human glorification through power. Jesus rejects that way in favor of a way of giving and self-sacrifice and calls his disciples to follow.

The masculine gender in my literal translation of Matthew 16:24 reflects the original Greek in which masculine pronouns (“he,” “him” and “his”) were used generically. I believe that Jesus’ words apply to women as well as men. Scripture quotations other than my own rough translations are from the
New Revised Standard Version. The Greek was copied and pasted from the Society for Biblical Literature Greek New Testament. Most English translations obscure, perhaps of necessity, the repeated use of “opiso.” Scott Hilburn's Argyle Sweater cartoon may be blasphemous, but it makes the fourth "Get behind me, Satan" joke that I know, and it nicely illustrates the subtitle of this post. I found it here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If the Bible Is Not Inerrant


I began a recent post on this blog with these words:

“Some people read the Bible as if it were one thing: a single book by one Author expressing a single point of view in one voice, God’s.”

I’m still not sure that I punctuated that sentence correctly, but I think it says what I mean: the Bible is not what some people claim that it is.

If I’m right (and I think I am), if the Bible is not one thing, if it is not what the Fundamentalists and literalists and biblicists and inerrantists claim, if it is not the direct words (plural) of God, if it is not a single book, if it is not the work of a single Author (written with or without the help of ghost writers), if it does not speak in a single voice, if it is not a rule book or a road map or a verse mine for proof texts, if it is not in every instance factual in matters of history and science...

If the Bible is none of these things, then what is it?

I believe that the Bible is both more complex and more wonderful than a doctrine of inerrancy suggests.

The Bible is a collection of books containing many kinds of literature: history, myth, poetry, prayer, prophecy, historical romance, fable, parable, allegory, apocalypse, epistle, etc.

The Bible was written by (not just through or in the voice of) unique, inspired people of faith who, like Ezra and Isaiah, sometimes disagree with one another, and who nonetheless bear witness to God.

The many works that make up the Bible are united under the umbrella of a great meta-narrative, a story that begins in Eden and ends in Paradise. It is the story of the Creator God who seeks reconciliation with alienated humanity--God who reaches out through patriarchs and their fractious progeny, through a chosen and sometimes disobedient nation, through a Christ who came out of that nation--a holy, human, crucified Messiah--and through his clay-footed followers.

The Bible is a library in leather covers, a collection of treasures in clay vessels, a symbol pointing beyond itself to a greater reality, a delightful, maddening, difficult, joyful, fearful and sometimes contradictory love letter. It is the question to all of your answers about God.

The Bible is, as Martin Luther said, “the cradle of the Christ.” It is the word (singular) of God and a witness to the Word (singular, cap) of God. It contains the knowledge sufficient for salvation.

The Bible is an invitation to take part in a conversation, an invitation to wrestle with the Lord, an invitation to find your place in the story that begins in Eden and ends in Paradise.

And need I say that the Bible is even more than that?

Punctuation is a pesky thing when one is deliberately writing run-on sentences. I purloined the picture of the scroll from this website dedicated to short mystery stories.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Good Stuff to Read


If I am about anything, it is the proposition that you do not have to shut off your brain to be a Christian. You do not need to ignore the plain evidence in front of your eyes to be a faithful follower of Christ. You do not need to swallow intellectual camels and strain at doctrinal gnats. You don’t, in other words, have to buy into a doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Of course, the biblical inerrantists will tell you otherwise. If, however, you find the idea that the Bible contains neither errors of fact nor contradictions untenable, then you can still be a Christian--my kind of Christian.

For your consideration, here are some recent posts from other blogs refuting the doctrine of inerrancy. 

First, the estimable Dr. David Lose gives “Four Good Reasons Not to Read the Bible Literally.” Among them is number 3:

“Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally.
We tend to think of anything that is labeled "conservative" as being older and more traditional. Oddly enough, however, the doctrine of inerrancy that literalists aim to conserve is only about a century and a half old. Not only did many of the Christian Church's brightest theologians not subscribe to anything like inerrancy, many adamantly opposed such a notion....”

Read all four reasons here.  

Next up, and somewhat heavier reading, is Dr. Tim Henderson’s three-part review of Christian Smith’s book The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. I don’t have a pull quote, but part one of the series can be found here, part two here and part three here.

Peter Rollins has a pointed essay on “How to Cut Up the Bible Without Anyone Noticing.” He says:

“For large numbers of churchgoers it is presented as a clean, coherent and cohesive text, an image that we tend to adopt for ourselves. Then, depending upon what we think the message of the text is, we simply refuse to see anything that might contradict our reading. We thus treat those parts of the text that might contradict our interpretation as taboo. In other words we see them without acknowledging them, we look at them in much the same way as a cow gazes at a passing car. When we are confronted with the broken nature of the text and the way in which we have repressed some parts of it at the expense of others we can often be shocked.”

Read it all here. (A tip of the blogger’s bonnet to both Rachel Held Evans and James McGrath for pointing this post out).

And finally, Dr. James McGrath gives us his take on “Brickical Literalism.”

“Fortunately for most Biblical literalists, they are persuaded that the text can’t possibly mean something that they don’t want to believe to be the case. And that’s why, in practice, there are no true Biblical literalists. But an exploration of what consistent Biblical literalism might look like makes clear why there shouldn’t be any Biblical literalists, and why we are perhaps fortunate that there really aren’t any.”

The whole article can be found here.

I hope, in the next few days, to write a post considering the question: "If the Bible is not inerrant, what is it?"

Friday, August 12, 2011

Theological Smackdown


Some people read the Bible as if it were one thing: a single book by one Author expressing a single point of view in one voice, God’s. Frankly, I don’t get it. Even a cursory glance between the covers of a Bible is enough to see that it is not a single book. The Bible is a collection of books written by a number of different people.

A slightly deeper look reveals that the Bible does not speak in a single voice. There are some portions that claim to be the direct words of God; “Thus says the Lord,” is a favorite expression of the Hebrew prophets. Other parts of the Bible tell stories about God and humans: stories in which God is a character. Still other parts of the Bible are clearly human words directed toward God; think of the many prayers in the book of Psalms.

Digging deeper still, we find that the biblical writers sometimes had different views of God. Their views are not always easy to reconcile. I don’t think that they were ever meant to be reconciled.

I have quoted Marcus Borg’s distinction between the “Word (singular) of God” and the “words (plural) of God” before. I think it is useful. The Bible, as the word of God, reveals God to us. Only portions of Scripture purport to be the direct words of God.

At my pastor’s text study this week, we discussed Isaiah 56:4–7.

“For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join
themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him,
   to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
    and hold fast my covenant—
   these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
   their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
   will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

Isaiah is saying that eunuchs and foreigners, people excluded by the Law of Moses, will be welcome to worship in the Lord’s temple. Isaiah has an expansive, inclusive vision of God and of God’s people.

Scholars tell us that this passage from Isaiah was written after the people of Judah had returned from their exile in Babylon. This was the time when the city of Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord were being rebuilt. It was also the time that the priest Ezra was promoting a vision very different from Isaiah’s.

Ezra had a narrow, exclusivist vision of a pure nation. In the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra, we are told that the Samaritans were not allowed to help the returned exiles in the work of rebuilding the temple. In chapter 10, Ezra orders the men of Judah who had married foreign women to send their wives and children away.

Isaiah’s inclusivity and Ezra’s exclusivity are both biblical.

It is interesting to me that these two visions, one inclusive and one exclusive, still play out among God’s people. As an example, my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has been shaken by controversies concerning the ordination of partnered homosexuals. The inclusivists sing “all are welcome, all are welcome” while the exlcusivists denounce partnered homosexuals as immoral and unworthy to serve in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Both sides can claim biblical warrant to justify their position.

I suppose that the question we must ask is, “Who’s right?” Who has the correct understanding of God’s word (singular) and God’s will? Is God an inclusivist or an exclusivist?

In the end, I suspect that our answers will tell us more about ourselves than about God.

Isaiah 56:4-7 was quoted from the New Revised Standard Version. Wiki was the source of the picture of Isaiah from Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Joel is Giving Away a Book

I hope to win it but you can enter the giveaway, too. Just go here and post a comment.

If I win, I'll read the book and pass it along.